Trump's tweet on injured 75-year-old man shows there's no bottom

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After former Defense Secretary James Mattis' excoriation of President Donald Trump's behavior in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, Republican Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski alluded to doubts she and her Republican colleagues have long had about the President's leadership. Chris Cillizza explains why this moment is so important.

Posted: Jun 10, 2020 7:11 AM
Updated: Jun 10, 2020 7:11 AM

If there is one constant to President Donald Trump's chaotic and capricious administration, it is that there is no bottom. Just when you think his behavior can't get worse -- less honest, more inflammatory -- the President takes the mic or pulls up Twitter and breaks new ground in how low he and his administration can go.

And if there is one constant to Republicans in Congress, it is that most of them are spineless cowards, pretending they don't know what the President is up to while tacitly enabling him.

The latest low: The President's conspiracy-mongering about an attack on an elderly man who suffered a critical head injury that sent him to intensive care after he was pushed to the ground by police at a protest in Buffalo. And then broader silence and denial from prominent Republicans.

On Tuesday morning, the President tweeted a right-wing conspiracy theory that the man, 75-year-old Martin Gugino, "could be an ANTIFA provocateur" who "was pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment." The President continued by saying, "I watched, he fell harder than was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?"

A video, which we can all watch with our own eyes, shows an officer pushing the clearly elderly Gugino, who falls to the ground where he lies, unmoving, as he bleeds from the head. The other officers simply step around him. One appears to begin to help, but is guided away by his colleague. Two officers were suspended after the incident.

Gugino is a longtime activist, and a member of nonprofits that focus on affordable housing and human rights. There's no evidence he is an "ANTIFA provocateur," nor that he faked a fall that left him bleeding from his ear and landed him in the hospital, nor that he was aiming a scanner (or that giving an old man a head injury would be the proper response to someone aiming a scanner), nor that there was any "set up" involved.

The President's potentially defamatory tweet deserves, like so many of his actions, swift response and condemnation. But members of his own party are so gutless and craven they deny having seen the tweet to begin with, presumably so that they might escape having to comment on it, or refuse to comment all together.

"I didn't see it," Marco Rubio told CNN's Manu Raju. "You're telling me about it. I don't read Twitter. I only write on it." John Cornyn also claimed to have totally missed it, and that "a lot of this stuff just goes over my head." Dan Sullivan declined even to look when Raju tried to show him the tweet. Kelly Loeffler refused to answer Raju's question about it. Lamar Alexander said he was "not going to give a running commentary on the President's tweets." Rick Scott claimed he didn't see the tweet, and that while he did watch the video of Gugino being shoved to the ground, he nonetheless didn't really know what happened. Mike Braun said he had no comment, but that the President "tweets a lot so I don't know how significant this one tweet is gonna be."

Even the very few Republicans who did comment had little to say. Mitt Romney at least called the President's tweet a "shocking thing to say," but then refused to "dignify it with any further comments."

John Thune called the tweet "a serious accusation which should only be made with facts and evidence," but also said that he hadn't seen supporting facts and evidence yet -- leaving himself noticeable wiggle room with Trump supporters. And he chafed at being asked the question, saying that, while he knows it's a reporter's job to ask, "most of us up here would rather not be political commentators on the President's tweets."

Lisa Murkowski, at least, said that "It just makes no sense that we're fanning the flames right at this time. In what might be the understatement of the year, she noted that "this is not good."

This is a repeated refrain and a recycled performance that happens whenever the President fires off something fake, dangerous or erratic: Journalists ask, Republicans prevaricate or obfuscate, everyone shrugs and moves on.

Congressional Republicans seem to want it both ways: To remain untainted by the President's most dangerous and deranged actions while enjoying any political benefits that might accrue from keeping him at the head of their party. They want to stay in power without acting in accordance with the responsibilities power requires.

And, unfortunately, too many in the media -- and in the electorate -- have let them get away with it.

For the past week, Democratic politicians from presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden to Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders have been asked repeatedly whether they agree with protesters' demands to "defund the police." To a one, they said no -- likely an unsatisfactory answer for the many people who want to see police budgets cut, but at the very least an honest and direct response.

These Democrats are not being asked to answer for the actions of their own party or leadership; they're being asked about a protest slogan they didn't invent and have not adopted. Still, journalists ask the question and expect answers. Democrats give them.

Republicans, on the other hand, are being asked about the words coming out of their leader's own mouth (or typed with his fingers) -- proclamations that are part of his presidential records. Republicans aren't just punting, they're essentially saying that they are willfully not paying attention, ignoring the jobs they were elected to do, which surely would include keeping up with what the President publicly states as policy and fact.

Yet their cowardice and dishonesty often barely registers as a story -- perhaps because it keeps happening over and over again.

It should be a bigger story -- it's the story of the GOP: bigger, deeper and more important than manic and deceitful presidential tweets. The President is the chief of what ails the Republican Party. But he is not the whole of that party's affliction. Every Republican politician is in some measure responsible for what their party has become -- and every time they say they simply don't know what the President proclaims, they let his lies and provocations continue.

American people, from elderly men protesting in the streets to the many citizens who deserve to know whether their representatives are actually representing them, are the ones paying the price.

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